Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror – BFI Southbank

You can always rely on the BFI for a good film season. I’ve seen many a classic thanks to their programme dedicated to an actor or genre. Everything from waspish Bette Davies films to Humphrey Bogart’s film noir antiheroes to Catherine Deneuve going mad in 60s South Kensington. And I’d like to think their amazing Bond season a few years back was my idea – I suggested it in a survey about 8 months before and then it happened – true story! Not only do they show great films but they’re very suggestible, what more could you want from a cinema?!

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film is their latest special season showing a selection of classic horror from the 1920s until the present day. Silent film is having a bit of a renaissance at the BFI, building on last year’s screening of the Lodger at the Barbican with live music played by the London Symphony Orchestra, which was amazing. Nosferatu is the 1922 vampire tale, long before vampires became clichéd figures with slicked back hair and comedy fangs. Nosferatu is moving to a derelict building in Bremen so the local agent sends Hutter with the paperwork. It begins almost like a fairy tale told as flashback from a manuscript written years later. Hutter is a bright and cheery young man, happily married to Ellen and constantly smiling. The screen is washed in yellow to indicate his sunny personality and carefree nature, un-phased by local fears as he travels to Nosferatu’s home. But his happy expression is quickly replaced by wide-eyed fear and dread as he is drawn into Nosferatu’s sphere, first in the mountains and then as he travels to Bremen to take up residence.

This is a very clever film and with subtle use of visual and musical cues, is genuinely creepy, even now when many of its techniques have since become cliché. The character of Nosferatu is an oddly shaped man, shrunken and hunched yet tall and imposing – at one point you see only his shadow move along the wall with monstrously long fingers outstretched. Yet, interestingly he’s not the confident predator of later films, but a being trapped by his need to hunt. The many visual references to creatures in the fields around his castle emphasise his animalistic nature and separation from the rational control of humanity. There’s an amazingly tense sequence when Nosferatu is on a ship bound for Bremen. Shots of the rigging swaying through the water are interspersed with dramatically crashing waves and you can feel the impending danger as he gets closer to his new hunting-ground.

Some of the techniques are of course a little dated; a blue wash on the screen indicates night, when on several occasions it’s clearly broad daylight and sunny, but these don’t detract from what actual seems a fresh and inspired take on the vampire myth. The music was fantastic at creating an initial sense of lightness, and then building an atmosphere of fear and drama later on. You don’t even notice there aren’t any words because the cadence of the music and the visual expression become more pronounced. With Hollywood investing so much in special effects that date before a film reaches DVD, and pushing 3D films which no one really wants, perhaps film-makers should look back to the techniques of 90 years ago to focus on mood and character which European cinema does so well. Unmuddied by an inadequate script the actor’s expressions tell us so much more about the characters than two hours of talking could. Seems Norma Desmond could be right – “we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!”

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is part of the BFI Southbank Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film Season which runs until December.


About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 350 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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